S.2 E.5: From Black and Gold to Blue and Gray

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Gustavus alumnus James McPherson.
Posted on August 3rd, 2020 by

Renowned Civil War historian James M. McPherson, Gustavus Class of ’58, reflects on his Gustavus education, his path from there to leading scholar of the war, his civil rights activism as a graduate student in Baltimore, and the searing conflict that preserved the Union and gave it, in Lincoln’s magnificent words, “a new birth of freedom.”

Season 2, Episode 5: From Black and Gold to Blue and Gray

Transcript:

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of Gustavus Office of Marketing. Will Clark, senior communications studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Among our many distinguished Alums, Gustavus Adolphus College proudly counts historian James M McPherson, Class of ’58. Many, myself included, consider Professor McPherson the pre-eminent civil war historian of our time. His scholarship on the topic is vast, rich, transformative, and widely read and admired by both historians and the general public. It encompasses not only superb articles, essays, reviews, and book chapters, but also landmark and award winning books, like “For Cause and Comrades, Why Men Fought in the Civil War,” which won the Lincoln Prize in 1998. And the magnificent “Battle Cry of Freedom,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and has been enormously influential both within and outside the academy.

Jim is not only an extraordinary scholar, he’s also a beloved and influential teacher, now retired, of countless undergraduate and graduate students of Princeton University, where he began teaching in 1962 and is currently George Henry Davis’s 86th Professor Emeritus of United States History.

Many of his students have become important historians in their own right. Given the classroom and archives, Jim has been active as a public historian in print, on television and radio, and as an advocate for preserving civil war sites. He has been extraordinarily generous to his undergraduate alma mater returning to Gustavus often as a speaker, including in my Civil War seminar, and endowing a recently announced professorship in US History, of which, full disclosure, I am profoundly grateful and deeply honored inaugural holder.

Jim, welcome to the podcast, it’s a very special treat to have you.

McPherson:

Well, it’s a treat for me to return to Gustavus in this long distance manor.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you so much. I thought we’d begin with a question I’m sure you’ve answered many times over the years, but nonetheless one that I think our listeners will be interested in, and that is, how did you find your way from- You were born in North Dakota if I’m remembering correctly, you then came to St. Peter where your dad was a high school teacher. How did you find your way to history and Civil War history specifically? Were you playing Civil War games or reading Civil War books as a kid?

McPherson:

No, unlike most of my friends and colleagues in the field of Civil War history, I had no childhood or young adult interest in Civil War history. It wasn’t really until I came to Gustavus and initially became interested in a broad range of historical periods and issues. At Gustavus, I wound up concentrating primarily in modern American history. It really wasn’t until I arrived at graduate school at John’s Hopkins in 1958 that I became interested in the Civil War era. I got into that subject initially because of my interest in Southern history. Growing up in North Dakota and Minnesota, I had never traveled to the South, but I was becoming politically aware and culturally aware in the 1950s when the Civil Rights Movement began in a major way with Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 and the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights leader, and then the Little Rock School desegregation crisis in 1957.

I was intrigued and horrified, I guess you might say, by these issues as they emerged in national prominence in the mid to late 1950s, and decided that while I didn’t know much about the South, I wanted to know more and the best way to learn about contemporary issues in the American South was to study the history of the South. I decided to go to graduate school at John’s Hopkins, where C. Vann Woodward, the foremost historian of the American South, became my mentor. I started out by thinking I would concentrate primarily on Southern history, in fact, I started out to do a doctoral dissertation on reconstruction in Alabama. Woodward was interested in having his students revise the Dunning School of Reconstructive Historiography, which had been hostile to the radical restoration program and defensive of the Southern white overthrow of reconstruction. I did a seminar paper on Alabama reconstruction on one of the elections during the reconstruction period and was beginning to move in that direction, but at the same time I was becoming more and more interested in the abolitionists.

Quite a different subject, but one that was relevant to what was going on in the United States at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, and what was also going on in Baltimore, the city where I was living at the time. I became intrigued by the parallels in many respects between the 1960s and the 1860s and between the civil rights activists of these two eras. The abolitionists, of course, in the 1860s, and the civil rights leaders and the whole Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. I decided after reading quite a bit about the abolitionists that there was a major gap in historiography of that movement. The gap being what happened to them after the beginning of the Civil War and especially after the abolition of slavery. Did they just sort of fade into the woodwork? Or did they remain as an active organization and an active movement? I wound up doing my dissertation on that subject and argued in the dissertation that they remained active in behalf of civil and political rights and education for the freed slaves through the end of the 1860s and indeed on in the 1870s and in the second generation beyond the 1870s.

Woodward was not particularly happy at first with my change from Alabama reconstruction to the abolitionists, but he was a wonderful graduate school mentor. He encouraged his students to pursue their own interests. He didn’t try to put us in a straight jacket of doing a subject of his choice, but was quite tolerant of allowing us to pursue whatever subject that we wanted to. He went ahead and approved that topic. In retrospect, I’m very happy that I made that change and moved into the field of abolitionist scholarship which then became my first book, “The Struggle For Equality.”

Greg Kaster:

Right.

McPherson:

And an offshoot of that book on “The Negro’s Civil War.” My third book continued the study of the abolitionists into the second and even into the third generation down to the founding of the NAACP in 1910 when one of the principal founders was named Oswald Garrison Villard, he was William Lloyd Garrison’s grandson, and there were a lot of other second and third generation abolitionists active in that enterprise as well. That became my third book, “The Abolitionist Legacy.” Some of this became rather far removed from the Civil War itself, but of course my first book, the study of the abolitionists during the Civil War and reconstruction launched me into one aspect of the Civil War experience. To my research and thinking and teaching about that aspect of it, I decided I needed to probe the context in which these civil rights activists of the 1860s that I was writing about, the context in which they operated. First the political context, and that of course led me to a lifelong interest in Abraham Lincoln.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

McPherson:

And eventually the military context of it. I became convinced like [inaudible 00:10:15] that all political power and reform change comes out of the barrel of a gun, and that certainly was true in the Civil War era. Slavery was abolished by military force, and what achievements reconstruction did have were accomplished in considerable part not only by the political leaders of the occupation forces of the United States Army during the 1860s and 1870s. Starting with an interest in these reform activists expanding to broader interest in the political context in which they operated, and moving yet to the larger context, the military aspect of the Civil War in which both the reform and political efforts took place. That’s the story of my interests in the Civil War and my broadening interest in the larger story of the whole Civil War experience.

Greg Kaster:

“The Struggle for Equality” is the first book of yours I encountered in graduate school, loved it, couldn’t put it down. This was in the mid 1970s, and it’s a superb book I highly recommend it. The other thing I wonder, was there any Civil War history at Gustavus? You had studied the war, am I right about that?

McPherson:

There was also a war course at Gustavus. There was only one American US Historian who also taught political science, Donover Lund. His interests were primarily in the 20th century, so the courses I took at Gustavus revolved around… The American history courses that I took revolved mainly around the 20th century, political history, foreign policy, political institutions. I really didn’t encounter much in the way of Civil War history except in the way of reading the novel by MacKinlay Kantor “Andersonville” and the trilogy by Bruce Catton “The Army of the Potomac.” When I arrived at graduate school, that was the sum total of my knowledge of the Civil War, those four books.

Greg Kaster:

Then you came out of Gustavus with virtually no Civil War history, and become a preeminent Civil War historian of our time. What was it about your education at Gustavus do you think that prepared you for graduate school at Hopkins?

McPherson:

I think probably several things, but two in particular. When I had arrived at Gustavus after a rather lackluster high school education, I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I took the usual introductory courses my freshman year, and one of them was called the “History of Western Civilization.” In those days that was the way we described it, which was basically a history of Europe since 1500, taught by Rodney Davis. In that course he assigned a lot of primary sources, essays by John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, other people that I probably hadn’t even heard of in high school much less knew anything about. Trying to come to grips with the ideas of these people and relate them to the history of the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries was really a struggle for me starting from ground 0, basically. When I finally managed to put two and two together and figure out what these people were trying to say and how it related to the history of that period, there was a feeling of euphoria.

I had managed to at least begin to master the subject, and I found that such a stimulating experience, the first step toward any degree of intellectual maturity, that I decided almost on the spot by the spring of my freshman year when we continued into modern European history in that introductory course, that I wanted to major in history. By my junior year I decided that I would focus primarily on United States history. That was this experience, for the first time in my life, of coming to grips with a difficult subject and managing to understand it and be able to talk about it and to write about it was the first step towards deciding that I wanted to become a historian. The second was a research paper that I wrote as a senior. It was equal to what we would call a senior thesis here at Princeton, but Gustavus didn’t have a senior thesis at the time.

Professor Doniver Lund allowed me to organize my own senior thesis. It was a history of the origins and early history of public education in my home town, St. Peter, in the 1850s and 1860s. Getting deeply into primary sources like the school board minutes, which the local public library, where I also had a part time job as janitor, the local public library had these school board minutes going all the way back to the mid 1850s when St. Peter was founded. The local newspaper had other kinds of primary sources and I found that such a stimulating experience that I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school and continue not just studying history, but researching and writing history. In addition to Woodward as the foremost Southern historian at the time, John’s Hopkins as a graduate school was famous at that time for focusing on a research oriented graduate program. There were courses, seminars, to be sure, but the main focus of Hopkins going all the way back to its founding as a graduate school in the 1870s was on research and writing.

I did go to Hopkins, and starting in the very first semester that I was there doing a research paper on Union Secretary of War, Edwin M Stanton and reconstruction. I did a research paper almost every semester and the research for my doctoral dissertation. That was my spring board for becoming not merely a teacher in history, but a writer in history as well.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a great example, the research paper you did at Gustavus, of how a subject that is local and in some ways narrow is a rich subject and can [inaudible 00:19:07]…

McPherson:

Well it was especially rich for me because it enriched my skills as a researcher and as a writer. It really launched my career.

Greg Kaster:

I’m going to cite this to our students who sometimes are reaching for these grand, overly ambitious topics thinking that’s what counts for research. Of course, that’s not the case at all. At John’s Hopkins, I think it was when you were a graduate student, you also were participating in some of the local protests [inaudible 00:19:45]. I wonder if you have any particular memories from that experience.

McPherson:

Oh, I do, yes. Baltimore of course was a border city on the edge of the South. When I was there, they had integrated public schools, but public facilities, restaurants, movie theaters, that sort of thing, were still largely segregated in Baltimore. Following the inspiration of the citizens in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, graduate students at Hopkins together with undergraduates at Morgan State college, which was a predominantly black shool in Baltimore, got together and participated in sit-ins at restaurants in Baltimore. I remember picketing a couple of movie theaters downtown, forcing them to integrate the seating capacity in their theaters. I think up until that time, blacks had been required to sit in the balcony, the usual kind of thing. That was an important experience for me and my wife, not only personally, taking part in an invigorating and important social protest movement, but it also gave me the kind of perspective as I was simultaneously doing research on the abolitionists 100 years earlier. I was both studying and in some respects, living, the subject of my doctorate dissertation.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a wonderful memory, thank you. Has any of that, or any other memories or thinking about the war and abolitionists, come back to you in light of the recent events here in Minneapolis? The killing of George Floyd by the police and the protests that followed?

McPherson:

Yes, certainly. I have spent a lot of time reading, watching television, and thinking about that. Having grown up in Minnesota I was very sad that this happened in Minnesota. It tarnished the image and reputation of the state for which I still have a great deal of affection. The irony of it has also struck me that as Minneapolis is a very progressive city in many respects, it’s been quite progressive on questions of race, but on that issue the police department seems to have been something of an outlier with the reputation that goes back before the current controversy and movement about George Floyd. A reputation for being anti-black and racist in its policies, it’s certainly not unique to the Minneapolis police department in any way. I followed that very closely with profound interest, but also quite a bit of sadness as well.

Greg Kaster:

What about the war itself, the Civil War? I do hear people, I’m sure you have too, Jim, that go, “My God, is there really anything more to say about the Civil War?” You have studied that war, and I don’t mean literally just the war, but the war and the surrounding years, for decades. What is it that has sustained you, that has interested you most over the years about the war? Stipulating, of course, that it’s all interesting.

McPherson:

It’s quite true that the Civil War is probably the most studied event in American history, or close to it at any rate. That does lead to the question, there have been thousands and thousands of books written about the Civil War, thousands of books written about Abraham Lincoln himself, so what more is there to say? New books about Lincoln keep coming out, new books about the Civil War keep coming out, and most of them have something new to say. I just read an advanced copy of a new 1,000 page biography of Lincoln by David Reynolds that will be out in the fall. There are a lot of new and important insights and information in that book. The subject is not thoroughly exhausted yet. In the Civil War itself, of course I think there’s probably not a whole lot left to be said about the military history of the war, but there are many other dimensions of the war that really do generate new and exciting and fresh insights. One is a recent spade of books, at least three or four, or four or five of them, on the environmental impact of the Civil War. As we become interested in issues like the environment in our contemporary society, that generates new questions about aspects of the past, and here’s a good example of it. Environmental history of the Civil War and the environmental impact of the war.

I think the subject is not exhausted, and we’ll undoubtedly continue to see new books on Lincoln, new books on the Civil War. Three or four recent books and a television program series on Ulysses S Grant, which is full of new information, new insights, new perspective, new interpretation. History is a kind of living enterprise, and as the contemporary world changes, the kinds of questions we ask about the past and how the past has effected the present continue to generate new kinds of information and new insights.

Greg Kaster:

What about the meaning of the war? In this sense, the meaning of the war, even at the outset, I’m thinking of… I don’t know if it’s debate, but I’m thinking of the historian Gary Gallagher’s work on the Union War. It’s a war about the Union, and then James Oakes’s more recent work that [inaudible 00:27:11] the emancipation war, the war about slavery from the get-go. Your thoughts on that?

McPherson:

I’m inclined to lean toward the Oakes interpretation, even though Gary Gallagher is a very close friend of mine. The slavery issue and the challenge to slavery by first the abolitionists and then the republican party and the defense and response of the slave South is what brought on the war in the first place. The issue of slavery was at the root of this conflict from the very beginning and from years and even decades before the actual shooting started in 1861. When the war started, the issue that lept forward immediately was Union versus dis-union. Both sides in the war, the Confederacy and the Union, found it in their interests at first to subordinate the slavery issue. That’s why Lincoln said, “This is a war for the Union, and whatever I do about slavery I do because it helps the Union,” in his famous letter to Horace Greeley in 1862. Of course the Confederate leadership, which was trying to win diplomatic recognition from Europe and economic support from European nations, it was in the Confederacy’s best interest to de-emphasize the slavery issue because they knew that that would hurt their quest, if they came out and openly said, “This is a war to preserve slavery.”

So it was in the best interests of both sides to de-emphasize slavery at first, but the slavery issue would not stay down, obviously, and it emerged by 1862 and especially by 1863 as co-equal, in terms of [inaudible 00:29:32] in both the Union and the Confederacy. In the case of the Union, slavery became first a means to preserve the Union, or abolition, I should say. There was an almost co-equal end in itself of northern war aims, and in the case of the Confederacy, the defense of slavery became virtually co-equal with winning independence for the Confederacy. I think you can’t say that the war started out about the Union and remained primarily about the Union. It started out, both, as about slavery and Union, and emerged much more openly about slavery by 1863.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I agree with you. That is how I try to teach it, not only in the Civil War course, but in the first half of US Survey course too. I’m always amazed that some people today, including some students who will insist it was about states rights period, slavery really had little to do with it, and yet you look at the primary sources that you’re suggesting and the slavery issue is everywhere.

McPherson:

Oh absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

What about Abraham Lincoln? I mean, I’m old enough, when I first taught Lincoln it was more about what a hypocrite he was, what a racist, how he didn’t do what he should have done from the get-go which was announce that the war was about emancipating [inaudible 00:31:16]. The other extreme of course though, the idea of Lincoln, is the great emancipator. You’ve studied Lincoln for a long time, you’ve even written, I think, a terrific outline. If you want to read a great book, read Professor McPherson’s short book on Abraham Lincoln, absolutely terrific. What is your understanding of Lincoln’s role, with respect to emancipation. [inaudible 00:31:42] too much credit?

McPherson:

I started out, as I explained a few moments ago, doing research on the abolitionists. There’s always a tendency for a historian to in some ways be influenced, maybe even captured by his sources.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

McPherson:

In the case of studying the abolitionists starting in 1860 and the election of 1860, I was influenced if not captured by their largely… Their very critical and in some cases quite hostile attitude toward Lincoln because they considered him too conservative on the slavery question, he was tardy to move towards emancipation, he publicly claimed that the war was about Union and not initially about slavery, even though he was convinced of his mind, of course, that it was about both Union and slavery. I kind of absorbed, for a few years, the critical perspective on Lincoln that he should have moved, just as you said, your initial attitude was that he should have moved more quickly, that he was maybe hypocritical, that he had overtones or maybe even explicit convictions of racism and so on and so forth.

As time went on, especially as I moved into a study of the political context of the slavery issue during the 1860s as I mentioned a few moments ago, then the military context, I modified my attitude toward Lincoln and came to respect and admire his political acumen. His ability to exercise leadership by appearing not to lead, to follow public opinion, to follow the political pressure coming from the radical republicans, kind of a left wing, if you will, of the republican party. But at the same time bringing along the conservative wing of the republican party, maybe the war democrats, public opinion. If he had moved as quickly as the abolitionists and maybe some neo-abolitionists in our own time, wanted him to, that he might have lost the support of a large share of northern public opinion for the war and a large degree of support from the army itself for prosecuting the war. I came to admire his skills of leadership.

There’s no question that Lincoln abhorred slavery, he said so many times in the 1850s. He said so again later on in the war when it became possible for him more openly to embrace the end of slavery cause. He regarded, as he said in the debates with Steven Douglas in 1858, as a “social, political, and moral evil.” He didn’t go quite as far as the abolitionists and call it a sin, but he did regard it as an “evil,” and he hoped that it would disappear from the United States. First he was a gradualist, and he was quite sensitive to the racial dimensions of the whole slavery question, and how one is going to deal with the racial consequences of the emancipation. He moved slowly, but inexorably, toward an end of slavery and toward the end of his life and his presidency, to a more egalitarian conviction and behalf of civil and political equality.

Greg Kaster:

You’ve written about Lincoln as a leader and Commander in Chief, one of my favorite essays that you’ve written, it shows up in your book “Lincoln and the Second American Revolution,” is a terrific essay about Lincoln’s language. Not just the language we’re all familiar with, most of us, the Gettysburg Address, magnificent. His way with words and how his ability with language was informed by his reading of Shakespeare, [inaudible 00:36:57], et. Cetera, and I think the essay might be called “How Lincoln Won the War with Metaphors,” if I remember correctly.

McPherson:

That’s correct, yes. I like that title and I like the essay still years later.

Greg Kaster:

I love it. Many years ago, I don’t know if I assigned the book, I came home graduation weekend at Gustavus, I came home, I sat down in my [inaudible 00:37:20] Mark Twain rocker, I was a big Mark Twain fan when I was younger, I’ve had that since high school, and opened the book to that essay and couldn’t finish it fast enough. It was fabulous, just great, and now I regularly assign it. Could you tell us a little bit about what you mean? I think you even suggest in there that what if Lincoln, with his command of language, his ability with words, metaphors, had been present with the [inaudible 00:37:47].

McPherson:

Are you still there?

Greg Kaster:

Still here, yes. Could you tell us a little bit more about what you make of Lincoln’s use of metaphors and how he “won the war.”

McPherson:

Metaphors are a wonderful way of communicating a complex idea by relating it to something quite different. We talk about seeing light at the end of the tunnel, we’re not talking literally about seeing light at the end of the tunnel. No, we’re talking about coming to grips with a difficult problem and finally figuring out maybe how we can solve this problem. That’s a metaphor that is so commonly used it has become a cliché. Lincoln was really skilled at using that, I don’t think he ever used the particular “light at the end of the tunnel” one, I don’t remember ever seeing that, but he was able to communicate complex ideas or ways of approaching complicated problems by this kind of homey language, often animal metaphors.

One of his favorite books when he was growing up and learning how to use language and how to tell stories, Lincoln of course was famous for his storytelling abilities, was Aesop’s Fables. Of course, Aesop’s Fables, each one of those, is a metaphor, an extended metaphor that we call a parable, using animal stories to make points about the human condition. Another book that Lincoln read thoroughly from cover to cover many times growing up, he basically learned to read or partly used it to learn to read was the Bible. The Bible, especially the New Testament, is full of parables, and a parable is an extended metaphor. Jesus would tell stories to his disciples that were basically parables illustrating a human problem. Lincoln learned from that how to communicate. The combination of the Bible and Aesop’s Fables and other things he read growing up, “Pilgrim’s Progress” was another, which is also an extended form of metaphor, is another book he read as a young person and would form part of his education.

He was an autodidactee, so he was virtually self educated. These books, which are beautiful examples of metaphorical language, formed a crucial part of that education. He was able to use that to communicate with the public in a way that, I think, was unparalleled among his contemporaries.

Greg Kaster:

As you point out, that kind of communication is absolutely critical from a Commander in Chief especially during war time.

McPherson:

Yes, absolutely. Another wonderful example by America’s second or third greatest president, Franklin D Roosevelt, is his garden hose metaphor to win support for Lend Lease in 1941. Lincoln would have been proud if he had come up with that I think, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if FDR’s use of that particular metaphor grew out of his own understanding of Lincoln in history.

Greg Kaster:

I wondered, I was actually going to ask you if you could give us an example of Lincoln using a metaphor in a way that was important.

McPherson:

One that I like was communication with his generals, with General Hooker in 1863 when the Confederate army started moving north in the invasion that led to the Battle of Gettysburg. Hooker wanted to move in behind the army of Northern Virginia as it moved north and just ignore it and instead move in and try and capture Richmond. Lincoln said, “You don’t want to get tied up in trying to cross the Rappahannock River and get caught not being able to kick in one decoration or gore in the other, like a bull straddling a fence.” That’s a typical kind of animal metaphor that Lincoln liked to use, and that’s one that has always amused me. Hooker got the point and moved north after Lee, and of course that led to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Greg Kaster:

Right, I was just about to say it makes the point and as you say, Hooker got the point. What about the idea which we still hear, perhaps even from some historians, I take that back, that the war could have been avoided. I guess with that is the assumption that that should have been. Could the war have been [inaudible 00:43:52]?

McPherson:

I’m convinced that some kind of show down, whether it took the form of the Civil War that happened, or some other form maybe not equally violent but equally uncompromised. Some kind of show down was inevitable in 1860 and 1861 over the issue of the expansion of slavery and as both sides saw the future of slavery. The war that we know happened could have been avoided in some ways, I suppose, if the Confederates… If Lincoln had decided not to try to resupply Fort Sumter but to let it go to the Confederacy, to the South Carolina troops that were besieging it, the war wouldn’t have started in the way it did and it might not have evolved in the way it did. Or alternatively, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet could have decided to allow the resupply of Fort Sumter, food for hungry men, and the war wouldn’t necessarily have started then and there.

But some kind of a show down, unless one side or the other completely gave in. Lincoln could have said, “All right, we’ll allow slavery. We’ll accept the compromise that would allow slavery south of 3630, in territory now a part of the United States,” or hereafter acquired, as that compromise called for. Lincoln refused to accept that. Or the Southerners could have accepted peacefully Lincoln’s election in 1860. Lincoln was elected by a constitutional majority in which the Southern states had participated as equals. They could have accepted the outcome of that election just as the losing side has accepted the outcome of previous elections. Instead, they decided to secede. There were any number of different alternatives that could have avoided the war that we know had happened, but some kind of a show down, some kind of a conflict that apparently could not be resolved peacefully, was I think inevitable in 1861.

Greg Kaster:

You just mentioned all kinds of conceivable alternatives, I did want to talk at least briefly about the role of contingency, not only during the war, but in history in general. You have taught me many things, I’ve never been one of your students formally, but I have read. I always tell my students that everything Professor McPherson writes is a must read. [crosstalk 00:47:05] The good news, it’s all incredible and you’ll learn a great deal. No other historian I’ve read is talking more about the importance of contingency. I talk to my students about the seven “Cs” of history, one of which is contingency. Could you just say a little bit about that, whether it be with the war or just in general? Why is it important to pay attention to contingency?

McPherson:

I think it’s important because people make history and people are fallible. They make decisions without a clear understanding of what the consequences of what those decisions might be, those decisions then raise problems that require new decisions. Nobody knows for sure what the outcome of that was going to be. When people cast their votes for Lincoln or for Steven Douglas, or for John C Breckenridge, or John Bell in 1860, they didn’t know for sure what the consequences of casting that ballot were going to be. The events that occurred then set up the whole problem of what to do about Lincoln’s election and then what to do about secession, which required people to make more decisions without knowing what the outcome was going to be. All of these things, one thing is contingent about one decision, one event leads to the next event, every thing is contingent on what has gone before.

The same thing is true with the military history of the war. The outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg wasn’t inevitable. The outcome of any other battle or campaign in the Civil War was not inevitable, it depended on the decisions made by the commanders, other high ranking officers, and the events are contingent upon each other. That’s why we study history, I think. It’s the story of one contingent event following another contingent event. We can discern various kinds of “forces” in history, but basically those “forces” depend on human behavior. The sum total of thousands of human decisions that take place one after another, each with an outcome that requires another decision to follow it. Everything being contingent on what’s gone before.

Greg Kaster:

I love that definition of history which I will be quoting to my students. You mentioned Gettysburg, and we ought to at least say something about military history. I’m curious, your testament on both the Union side and the Confederate side of generals. Is it Grant for the Union? Is it Lee for the Confederacy? What are your thoughts about those two men, in [inaudible 00:50:48] as well if you like, as generals?

McPherson:

Obviously they were the two most important generals in the Civil War. It was campaigns and battles planned and launched and carried out by them that were the most determining factors in the course of the war. As a generalization, and of course any generalization about Civil War commanders, you’re on thin ice when you make these generalizations because somebody’s going to come along and challenge it and maybe prove you wrong or at least prove your opinion nonsense, whatever. I would say that Grant had the best strategic grasp, the nature of the Civil War and what needed to be done in order to win it. He was the foremost strategist of the war, and when he teams up with Lincoln, who as both a military and political strategist, that’s the unbeatable team, Lincoln and Grant. As a tactical commander, Lee was probably the foremost, despite his failures in that sphere at Gettysburg. Time and again, especially almost to the end of the war with the major exception of Gettysburg, Lee’s tactical genius made up for many other deficiencies in the Confederate war effort by winning some important battles and undermining northern morale by winning those victories. As an oversimplification, but a broad generalization, Grant was the foremost military strategist of the Civil War and Lee was the master tactician as a commander in the Civil War.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you. We’ll leave that part of this discussion there and let listeners react. The [inaudible 00:53:19], we’re almost out of time, but I’d like to turn now to the lessons of the war. I know this is a topic we could spend hours on, but you, thinking both as an individual and a historian specifically, what lessons are there for us? I know there are many, but maybe the two or three most important in your mind, for us today as we think about, read about, learn about the Civil War?

McPherson:

I guess one lesson, and maybe the most important lesson from the war arcs back to what I was speaking about just a couple of moments ago, and that is the consequences of decisions and especially unforeseen consequences of decisions. The lesson, I think, is to think through all of the potential consequences of a decision, like the decision to secede. How’s the other side going to react to that? How are your own people going to react to that? Or you had Lincoln’s case, the decision not to compromise over the expansion of slavery. What are the possible consequences of that decision, and are you willing to accept the worst case scenario? Which of course, did happen in the consequence of both of those decisions. Every day, a political leader faces important decisions, and unimportant decisions too, but especially in matters of peace and war and social change and so on. Think through the potential consequences. What is likely to happen? How willing are you to accept the different potential consequences of this decision, including the worst case scenario? That’s the major lesson that we can learn from the Civil War because I think there are so many examples of disastrous or crucial unforeseen consequences of decisions that were made by people on both sides in the course of that war.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Secession arguably being [inaudible 00:56:15] of them.

McPherson:

Yes, absolutely. The great irony of the Civil War is that the South seceded to preserve slavery, and the act of secession assured the destruction of slavery.

Greg Kaster:

Right. This has been absolutely delightful for me, I have long admired your work. It’s terrific. You write so well, you think so well. I always tell my students, the thing about Professor McPherson’s work is he anticipates the criticisms, so it’s really hard to critique you sometimes. An absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for all that you’ve done, not only for [inaudible 00:56:59].

McPherson:

I’ve enjoyed our conversation. It takes me back to my days of teaching seminars when I’d have conversations like this.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you. Thanks for all your generosity towards your alma mater. Take good care.

McPherson:

All right, and good luck to you Greg, and good luck to Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you so much, take care.

McPherson:

Take care. Bye bye.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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